This has been a really tough rehab season for me personally. I have come the closest I’ve ever come to quitting this year and probably not for the reasons you might think. Not because most of the money that it takes to support these animals comes out of my own pocket. Not because I haven’t had a single day off in three years. Not because my back hurts daily. Not because week after week I have to reschedule visits with my one and only grandchild because an animal needs help. All of these things I can handle. So why?
I have had to sit down and ask myself, “What is wrong? Why is this year so different than years before? Why do I dread answering the phone?”, and really think about what is it that is getting to me so badly this year over previous years and I have finally figured it out. The dreaded “REHABBER BURN OUT” is hitting! OH NO
Anybody who has worked with wildlife rehabilitators can tell you that the “burn out” rate among rehabbers is quite high. Other rehabbers have often warned us of this “rehabber burn out” due to the volume of animals we take in (which is higher than most individual rehabbers), “you better be careful or you’ll burn out”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this, and honestly, it has never been a concern. We know where our limits are and we stay within them.
Most attribute this “burn out” to the toll it takes on a person to continually watch animals suffer and die. That has to take its toll on a person, right? I’ve often wondered what the real reason is, because, as rehabbers, we see animals suffer and die, but the successes help us through the heartbreak, so we can go on and help the next animal. If death creates burn out, why don’t ER doctors burn out as quickly?
This summer I think I have finally figured out just why the burn out rate is really so much higher in wildlife rehabilitation than in other areas and the reason has absolutely nothing to do with animals or the care we provide to the animals or the money it costs us or the loss of personal time it has cost.
The real reason I have personally come so close to “rehabber burn out” can be attributed to one thing and one thing only…..
Let me start by saying I do not mean ALL people. Many people I speak to are very nice and truly just care about wildlife. The ones I’m talking about are not those. These are people that do not want to be inconvenienced or told that their assumptions are not correct.
And the majority of this human contact is not even in person, it’s over the phone. After decades of doing wildlife rehabilitation, I am STILL constantly amazed at what people will say to me over the phone as I am honestly trying to help the best I can. In fact, the way that people behave over the phone has gotten exponentially worse in just the last few years.
I won’t go into the names I’ve been called, or the threats I have personally received, but some examples of things that I have personally been told numerous times over the phone are listed below:
1. My tax dollars pay your salary!
o Typically this is said by somebody who has called about a small animal that is in need of help, but is not considered dangerous to handle. We have usually just informed the person that we would be happy to give the animal care, but they would need to transport the animal to us.
o The reality is, not only do NO tax dollars pay my salary, but I don’t get paid, in salary or otherwise to work with these animals. Never have been paid for working with these animals. Every dime of money that comes in here goes directly to animal care.
o And it rarely matters how well or nicely I explain this fact, the person will still be very hateful and insist on getting their way.
o The reality is that there are a few rehabilitators that do get paid to do this, however, they work for very large facilities and because the facility is so well funded, they have the luxury of working ONLY with the animals and not having to answer the phone and deal with the public.
2. The guy that works at petsmart told me that you are wrong!
o This is one I’ve gotten a few times when explaining to a person that a bird is a fledgling and the best thing that they can do for this bird is to leave it alone and allow its parents to continue to care for it.
o And now I’m left to argue with a person who chooses to believe a person that has a few months of experience selling pet toys to people over my own decades of experience dealing with the species we are actually discussing. Talk about disheartening!
3. Well, I’m just not comfortable with that. (this is a “nice” way of the person telling me that they aren’t going to do what I just said they should do)
o This is typically said by a person who has been told to leave a fledgling bird or a parked fawn where it is, so that the natural parents can still care for it.
o I realize that leaving babies alone is not what humans do with their own young, but whether a person is comfortable with it or not, for many species of wildlife, it IS the best thing for them.
o So now I’m supposed to be more concerned about how the human feels than what’s best for the animal?
4. If you cared you would come get this animal.
o Typically said by a person who does not want to transport the animal to us, but wants us to come and pick it up.
o Given that we cover 28 counties within this state, if we were to go and pick up every animal that we get called about…well, that would be physically impossible, there just aren’t enough hours in the day. But, if we tried, the animals that are already in our care would not get care.
o This is honestly, just a mean thing to say. There is no other way to word it, it’s just mean. I do care. In fact, I care enough not to hang up the phone as this person starts their abuse. THAT is caring!
5. It’s your job, not mine
o Actually, the word “job” implies that a person is paid to perform a specific set of tasks, so this word really does not apply to what we do here.
o For one, we are not paid, for two, not even my permits require me to do anything. They simply ALLOW me to do things if I so choose.
o Honestly, you could not pay me enough money to deal with the amount of abuse that I put up with on the phone. If this was a job, I would have quit long, long ago.
o In all reality, caring about nature should be the job of every human! Not just mine because I choose to help.
6. Oh, that’s too far, I’m not driving that far.
o Typically said by a person who lives some distance (often within 30 miles) of us and does not want to take the time to transport the animal.
o I always wonder if that person realizes that the road is the same length in each direction and that they are dealing with just one animal, we are getting called for upwards of twenty animals a day, all in need of transport.
7. Well I made the phone call, I’ve done my part.
o Typically said by a person who does not want to transport the animal to us
o I always wonder if I have then done my part by answering that call?
8. I’m going to report you.
o This was said to me by a woman who brought us a song bird. At the time that she brought the bird, she was handed a post card with explicit instructions on how to get updates on the animal’s progress, which included emailing and NOT calling.
o When she called for an update (which she’d been told not to do), as I tried to give her the update, she kept saying “I can’t hear you”, so I told her that she should try to call back later. THIS she obviously heard, because that is when she started screaming this into the phone, “I’m going to report you”.
o All I could think was, “report me for what? Caring for the bird?” I’m not required to give updates to anybody other than those who hold our permits (being state and federal government)
o And she did report me. In fact, this woman, who could not follow the simple directions on the card she was given, was able to obtain phone numbers of government officials that I’m not even sure how to get. All JUST to complain that I didn’t give her an update. An update I actually tried to give her even though she didn’t follow the directions and even though I am not required to give anybody updates.
9. Well, what am I supposed to do then?
o How does one even begin to answer this question? What are you supposed to do as you look at an animal in need that you won’t transport to the proper person? I just don’t know.
No, I am not going to quit rehabilitating wildlife. It sure isn't the animals' fault that some humans are selfish. But I do now understand better what “rehabber burn out” is and how it is caused.
And people worry about contact with animals? Give me an angry bear over a human who feels they are entitled simply by being ANY day of the week!